Regulating racism

Universities should address the use of social media in perpetuating offensive behavior

Yesterday, we wrote about the systemic nature of racism at colleges and the need to combat it on many levels. Following that line of logic, the University of Rochester, through its senior counsel Richard S. Crummins, has asked the social media app Yik Yak, whose users operate under the assumption of anonymity, to turn over information about its users who have posted racially offensive and threatening language — a step that demonstrates the university’s commitment to maintaining a safe and inclusive environment.

Recently, Yik Yak has become a major hub for communication among college students, enjoying so much success that it even briefly expanded its range to high schools — an expansion somewhat cut short by high schoolers’ immaturity when using the app. This immaturity — and, often, offensive behavior — does not appear to dissipate significantly in populations of college students. At Rowan University in New Jersey, students spread a sex tape via Yik Yak without the subject’s permission. At Middlebury College, a sophomore found a post making a sexual reference about her and comparing her to a “hippo.” These are merely examples of the demeaning posts the safety of anonymity can fuel.

This is not to decry Yik Yak, which often consists of quips and inoffensive, benign posts. But the platforms on which students bully each other or voice racist, sexist or otherwise offensive remarks have changed dramatically over the past several years. College administrators must keep up with these changes, as those at the University of Rochester appear to have done.

Yik Yak’s Privacy Policy, which falls under the Terms and Conditions users agree to by using the app, allows the company to disclose information about users, including IP addresses, location information or other identifiers (though they don’t collect names and contact information from users). One of the reasons provided for this policy is “to protect us [Yik Yak] and others” — specifically in reference to illegal activities, fraud or “situations involving potential threats to the safety of any person.”

This makes it relatively easy for Yik Yak to provide universities with ways to locate students who may be engaging in activities that violate schools’ codes of conduct. At Rochester, the need to locate students stemmed from racially motivated threats. While racist language in general may fall under students’ First Amendment rights, threats do not. As we wrote yesterday, racism — and other isms — is perpetuated by the existence of environments of inactive bystanders. Anonymous social media platforms demonstrate an area of student interaction where offensive posts are ubiquitous and users have no accountability. With increased administrative investigation and the cooperation of Yik Yak, there can be accountability, and with fewer offensive posts after particular students are appropriately punished, other students may begin to stop seeing social media platforms as a hidden way to voice racist remarks. University administrations already regulate student interactions via their codes of conduct and contracts with student organizations like fraternities and sororities. In this particular case, administrators can further incentivize appropriate behavior in spheres of social interaction outside the classroom — what the University of Rochester is doing and what other schools should do, too.

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